Bolivia's opposition regions call general strike

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LA PAZ, Nov 27 (Reuters) Opposition leaders who control six of Bolivia's nine provinces called a general strike for tomorrow in their latest protest against efforts by leftist President Evo Morales to rewrite the constitution.

The six lowland provinces, which are home to Bolivia's rich natural gas fields, want the new constitution to give them more autonomy from the central government. They also want the seat of government to be moved from the Andean city of La Paz, a Morales stronghold, to the southern city of Sucre -- nominally the capital but home only to the top courts.

But Morales, the country's first leader of indigenous descent, has control of the constitutional assembly, which he says will reform the constitution to empower the poor, Indian majority. The issue has deepened ethnic and regional divisions in South America's poorest country, which has a long history of political upheaval.

Four people were killed in violent protests against the reform over the weekend in Sucre, after delegates from Morales' Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party and allies met in a military building and approved a new draft constitution without opposition members.

''We're going to show the government we don't accept its impositions. We know how to defend our resources and will never accept the constitution approved on Saturday,'' said Branco Marinkovic, president of the powerful Civic Committee in the city of Santa Cruz, the poor country's economic powerhouse.

Tomorrow strike was called by governors and political leaders in Santa Cruz, Tarija, Cochabamba, Chuquisaca, Beni and Pando, who vowed to follow it with hunger strikes next week.

Government spokesman Alex Contreras said the strike ''was condemned to failure and was no more than another attempt by the oligarchy to block the changes the people are fighting for.'' Three provinces in the western Andean, region of the country La Paz, Oruro and Potosi, where Morales is highly popular, did not join the strike plan. They have large populations of Aymara and Quechua indians and back the new constitution.

Morales is an ally of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, the most vocal of Latin America's new generation of leftist leaders. Venezuelans vote this weekend on Chavez's proposed reforms to their constitution that would abolish term limits for his presidency and Ecuador's President Felipe Correa is also proposing a overhaul of his country's basic law.

Police were taken off the streets of Sucre after the weekend's unrest, in which mobs torched police stations and set fire to a prison, letting its inmates escape. Banks and other businesses that need security remained closed today.

Previous general strikes have not affected Bolivia's natural gas industry, which Morales nationalized in one of his main reforms since taking office in January 2006.

The overall draft constitution that was approved on Saturday still has to be approved article by article and submitted to a national referendum.

Reuters AK VP0043

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